Posts Tagged ‘ Muttahida Qaumi Movement ’

More Than 300 Killed in Pakistani Factory Fires

By Zia ur-Rehman and Salman Masood for The New York Times

Fire ravaged a textile factory complex in the commercial hub of Karachi early Wednesday, killing almost 300 workers trapped behind locked doors and raising questions about the woeful lack of regulation in a vital sector of Pakistan’s faltering economy.

It was Pakistan’s worst industrial accident, officials said, and it came just hours after another fire, at a shoe factory in the eastern city of Lahore, had killed at least 25.

Flames and smoke swept the cramped textile factory in Baldia Town, a northwestern industrial suburb, creating panic among the hundreds of poorly paid workers who had been making undergarments and plastic tools.

They had few options of escape — every exit but one had been locked, officials said, and the windows were mostly barred. In desperation, some flung themselves from the top floors of the four-story building, sustaining serious injuries or worse, witnesses said. But many others failed to make it that far, trapped by an inferno that advanced mercilessly through a building that officials later described as a death trap.

Rescue workers said most of the victims died of smoke inhalation, and many of the survivors sustained third-degree burns. As firefighters advanced into the wreckage during the day, battling back flames, they found dozens of bodies clumped together on the lower floors.

One survivor, Muhammad Aslam, said he heard two loud blasts before the factory filled first with smoke, then with the desperate screams of his fellow workers. “Only one entrance was open. All the others were closed,” he said at a hospital, describing scenes of panic and chaos.

Mr. Aslam, who was being treated for a broken leg, said he saved himself by leaping from a third-floor window.

Hundreds of anguished relatives gathered at the site, many of them sobbing as they sought news. Some impeded the rescue operation, and baton-wielding police officers tried to disperse the crowd but failed.

“If my son does not return, I will commit suicide in front of the factory,” one woman shouted before news cameras as relatives tried to console her.

The death toll rose quickly. By evening, the Karachi commissioner, Roshan Ali Sheikh, said that 289 people had died, most of them men. The provincial health minister, Sagheer Ahmed, put the toll at 248, which he said was the number of bodies accounted for at major hospitals. The number was expected to rise further.

In the shoe factory fire in Lahore, 25 people were reported killed and dozens wounded. Officials said that blaze had been set off by a generator that caught fire and ignited chemicals stored nearby in the factory, illegally located in a residential neighborhood. Most of the victims were men under 25.

The fires immediately revived long-running questions about the regulation of Pakistan’s manufacturing sector, centered in Karachi, and of the vital textiles industry in particular.

Textiles are a major source of foreign currency for Pakistan, accounting for 7.4 percent of its gross domestic product in 2011 and employing 38 percent of the manufacturing work force. Pakistani cotton products are highly sought in neighboring India and form the backbone of a burgeoning fashion industry that caters to the elite. President Asif Ali Zardari’s government has often called on the United States to drop tariff barriers to Pakistani textile imports, which it says would be preferable to traditional aid.

But the industry suffers from weak regulation, characterized by lax oversight and corruption. Business owners often put profits over safety, workers’ rights advocates say.

On Wednesday evening the police raided the home of the owner of the Karachi factory, Abdul Aziz, who appeared to have gone into hiding. According to an online business information service, his company, Ali Enterprises, manufactured denim, knitted garments and hosiery and had capital of between $10 million and $50 million.

His nephew, Shahid Bhaila, the chief executive officer of the company, was also being sought for questioning. The police said both men had been placed on the exit control list, barring them from leaving the country.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the most powerful political party in Karachi, announced three days of mourning. The city electricity company said it would cancel all outstanding bills for the families of those affected as a good will gesture.

The cause of the fire remained unclear. Geo News, the largest news channel, speculated that it had been started by extortionists, reporting that Mr. Aziz had previously faced a demand for a shakedown payment of more than $100,000, which he refused.

But others said an electrical fire was more likely. Wali Muhammad, a former electrical inspector, said that most accidental fires are caused by short circuits in equipment. But since 2003, he said, inspectors had been forbidden by law from visiting factories in Karachi and Punjab; it was not immediately clear why.

“This is criminal negligence,” he told Geo News, referring to the ban.

Another mystery surrounded the locked factory doors. Some survivors said the exits had been shuttered to prevent workers from slipping out early; others said it was the consequence of a recent break-in.

A majority of the garment workers came from Orangi Town, a poor working-class neighborhood in Karachi. Seventeen of the victims came from the same street, local news media reported.

The factory building suffered severe structural damage in the blaze, and officials feared it would collapse on rescue workers during the day.

While many distraught family members set up camp near the factory, others moved between city hospitals, seeking news of loved ones. One man said he was looking for his cousin, who earned $70 a month as a cashier. “He’s still missing. I’m afraid he may have been working in the basement,” the man said.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan called on the government to mount an immediate investigation. “The head of the firefighting operations in Karachi has noted that the factory was dangerous, flimsily built and had no emergency exits,” said Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the rights group. “Why did all of that escape official attention earlier?”

Workplace safety is guaranteed under Pakistan’s Constitution, but labor leaders say that government oversight has crumbled rapidly in recent years, along with a general decline in governance.

Sharafat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research, a labor rights group, said that 151 workers died in accidents in 2011. The state was partly responsible for the deaths, he said, because its civil servants “silently and criminally allow violation of laws and regulations established to ensure health and safety provisions at work.”

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Afridi Asks Zardari For Help

As Reported by The AFP

Former captain Shahid Afridi appealed to President Asif Ali Zardari for help on Wednesday after his central contract was suspended when he announced his retirement from international cricket. “I have appealed to the president to intervene urgently, also deal with other issues and save the game from getting into more crises,” Afridi told AFP by telephone from Southampton.

Afridi confirmed that the England and Wales Cricket Board stopped him from playing after the PCB revoked its permission.
“The captaincy was not an issue as I have already played under senior players, but it was a matter of self respect and honour which was hurt,” said Afridi who refused to speak about the PCB sanctions.

The opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N party has already submitted an adjournment motion in the national assembly against Afridi’s punishment.
Former Pakistan captain Imran Khan, who now heads his own opposition party, said the PCB was not run professionally.
“The board is not run like an institution,” Khan told a television channel. “Afridi feels injustice is done so he has taken a decision and you don’t change four-five captains in a year.”

“Just recently everyone was praising Afridi after he led Pakistan to the semi-final of the World Cup and then suddenly this happened,” said Khan. “The board is also run on ad-hoc basis like the country,” he added.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which belongs to the coalition government headed by Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party, also objected to the sanctions on Afridi. “President Zardari should take notice of the biased attitude of the board,” said MQM leader Farooq Sattar. “You don’t treat national heroes like this.”

Sports Minister Shaukatullah Khan lashed out at PCB chairman Ijaz Butt over the “injustice” and said he would discuss the matter with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Abdul Ghaffar Qureshi, who heads the sports committee in the upper house of parliament, demanded Butt’s sacking.
“A change in the PCB is imperative,” said Qureshi. “Butt has not allowed any captain to settle so it will be better to sack him.”

The 31-year-old all-rounder, dumped as one-day captain following a row with coach Waqar Younis last month, quit international cricket in protest at his treatment by the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB).
In response, the PCB suspended his central contract and revoked all his no-objection certificates, meaning he will not be officially permitted to play overseas.

The move will stop him from playing for Hampshire in England’s Twenty20 league and in next month’s Sri Lankan Premier League.
Afridi said that he came to know about his removal from the team’s captaincy through media and the board did not bother to inform him about that decision.

Key Party Rejoins Pakistan’s Coalition

By J David Goodman for The New York Times

A day after Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani announced a rollback of fuel price increases that were deeply unpopular in Pakistan, a major political party said on Friday that it would rejoin the ruling coalition, defusing a tense political standoff and saving Mr. Gilani’s government from potential collapse, news reports said.

The party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, broke with the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party over the weekend in part to protest the price increases and other reforms proposed by the government, causing a political crisis for the prime minister and President Asif Ali Zardari. Opposition parties echoed the call to reverse the increases as well as recent cuts in spending and threatened the government with a three-day deadline before a no-confidence vote.

Political tension deepened on Tuesday with the assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s most populous region and an ally of Mr. Zardari, because of his support for changes to the country’s blasphemy law.

Raza Haroon, a senior leader in the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, said on Friday that his party had decided to rejoin the ruling coalition for the sake of democracy and the country, The Associated Press reported.

While the government appears to have survived for the moment, it does so at the expense of political and economic reforms encouraged by the United States.

In a meeting with Muttahida Qaumi Movement party officials on Friday, Mr. Gilani said that he would also put off proposed changes promoted by the State Department and the International Monetary Fund to increase tax collection, Reuters reported.

Pakistan, an important American ally, still faces a widening rift between secular and religious forces within the government, even as its army battles Taliban insurgents around the country’s mountainous northwestern border with Afghanistan.

The killing of Mr. Taseer, by a religiously motivated member of his own security staff, raised concerns for the United States and exposed the deep divisions in Pakistan. His killer, who proudly confessed the crime to the police, has been celebrated by many and was greeted by affectionate crowds throwing rose petals both times he appeared in court this week.

But Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier this week that Pakistan’s security relations with the United States would survive the crisis.

Salman Taseer Assassination Points to Pakistani Extremists’ Mounting Power

By Karin Brulliard for The Washington Post

One of Pakistan’s most openly progressive politicians was gunned down Tuesday in an act that violently highlighted extremists’ tightening grip on the country even as the beleaguered government struggled to stay in power.

The killing of Salman Taseer, apparently at the hands of one of his own guards, marked the most prominent political assassination in Pakistan since former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s death three years ago.

The razor-tongued governor of Pakistan’s most populous province was known for speaking out on behalf of women and religious minorities, and his slaying stunned the nation and alarmed U.S. officials. It also further rocked Taseer’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party, which is desperately trying to keep its government afloat following a key ally’s defection to the opposition Sunday.

The secular PPP condemned the killing and promised a swift investigation, but its weakened position undermines its ability to crack down on religious extremists.

In timing that underscored those limitations, Taseer was shot in an upscale area of Islamabad as Pakistan’s main opposition party was across town demanding that the government agree within three days to implement a list of reforms, or risk collapse.

After the killing, the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said it would allow three additional days for the changes, including a slash in government spending and the reversal of unpopular fuel price increases.

Taseer was a chief ally of President Asif Ali Zardari, who in 2008 appointed him governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s wealthiest province. But Sharif’s party rules the province, making Taseer’s assassination a blow to the federal government’s influence there.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the killing in a statement Tuesday, saying she had met Taseer and “admired his work to promote tolerance and the education of Pakistan’s future generations.”

Taseer’s apparent killer cited his boss’s stance against a controversial anti-blasphemy law in justifying his actions. As the embattled, pro-U.S. PPP sought in recent days to win back defecting allies that also include a small Islamic party, it had already said it would not support a proposal to change the blasphemy statutes. That left Taseer one of the few vocal champions of the move, which hard-line religious organizations had labeled a Western conspiracy.

The laws have drawn scrutiny since a Christian woman was sentenced to death in November for allegedly criticizing the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Taseer had called for her pardon, leading religious groups to denounce him as an “apostate” and burn effigies of him during a nationwide strike last week in support of the law. One Muslim cleric has offered $6,000 to anyone who kills the woman, who remains in jail.

Even as Pakistani television stations were dominated Tuesday by commentators condemning rising religious intolerance, supporters of Taseer’s arrested guard, Mumtaz Qadri, 26, created a page for him on Facebook. Page visitors called him a “hero” and praised his “awesome job.” No major unrest over the killing was reported, but authorities said they were on high alert.

“This shows how the religious extremists want to impose their agenda to terrorize the society,” Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities affairs and also a proponent of changing the laws, said in an interview. “This cowardly act cannot stop us who are raising our voice.”

Yet in a country where Taliban militants increasingly flex their muscles through bombings, religious hard-liners have great power to intimidate even though polls show that their views are not widely shared. Last week’s strike by Islamic organizations drew few supporters to the streets, but shops in major cities closed – and many merchants said they did so under threat.

Human rights activists say the blasphemy laws are also abused by extremists, who use them as a tool to persecute minorities or opponents by bullying police and courts into arrests and convictions. The laws were strengthened during the 1980s rule of Islamist military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq.

Taseer lamented the power of the religious mob in an interview last summer following bombings of mosques belonging to the Ahmadi sect, whose members identify themselves as Muslims but are barred by the constitution from “posing” as such. Taseer – whose appointed position gave him little direct power in Punjab – condemned the provincial government of Sharif’s center-right PML-N for what he called its tolerance of radical religious groups.

“Extremist people are not in the majority,” Taseer said at the time. “This is a very narrow minority, but . . . they are always prepared to do and die. That is their strength.”

On Dec. 24, he had posted on his Twitter account: “My observation on minorities: A man/nation is judged by how they support those weaker than them not how they lean on those stronger.”

Authorities said Taseer’s guard, a member of an elite Punjab provincial police force that provides VIP security, shot the governor multiple times outside the Kohsar market in Islamabad, a small shopping plaza near his residence that is frequented by foreigners. The guard proudly surrendered to police afterward, according to local news reports.

Most political parties condemned the killing, and the government announced a three-day mourning period, during which political activity would be suspended. Zardari, to whom Taseer was close, called the assassination “ghastly.”

“The governor of Punjab was the bravest person in our government, and the stands he took for women, minorities and on the blasphemy law were incredibly brave and will never be forgotten,” Farahnaz Ispahani, a Zardari spokeswoman, said in an interview.

Taseer, who began his political career as a PPP student activist, was a successful businessman who played polo and smoked heavily. With his flashy sunglasses and frequent Twitter dispatches, Taseer, 66, cut a rather shocking figure in a country dominated by conservative social mores.

Critics assailed him for fathering a child with an Indian journalist while he was still married to the mother of his other children. In 2008, minor scandals broke out when opponents published photos online of him holding wine glasses at parties and of one of his daughters wearing shorts and dancing.

Despite the alleged gunman’s confession, Taseer’s killing was sure to be swept up in the conspiracy theories that permeate Pakistani politics, particularly in times of turmoil. Interior Minister Rehman Malik said investigators would seek to determine whether the suspect acted alone or was “asked” to carry out the attack.

In the hours after the killing, some criticism centered on the PML-N-led Punjab government, which provided Taseer’s police guard. There was no indication Tuesday night that the party played a role.

But the PML-N might yet bring down the PPP, whose government faces growing criticism over corruption, a floundering economy and a ham-handed response to last year’s devastating floods. The ruling party’s coalition partner, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, withdrew from the government Sunday, weakening its mandate by depriving it of a parliamentary majority.

A united opposition could pass a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, leading to his ouster and potentially triggering early elections. That has appeared unlikely, because of divisions among opposition parties. But Sharif threatened Tuesday to “ask the opposition parties to come forward and we will give them our full support” if the government does not show progress on reforms within 45 days, according to the Associated Press.

Like many in the PPP, Taseer often criticized opposition parties for stoking political instability in a country that has been ruled by the military for half its 63-year history and where an elected government has never completed its term.

Religious extremism, Taseer said last summer, would be quashed only by the “continuous, functional position of a democratic system.”

Toll in Karachi Riots Rises to 73

As Reported by Sify News

The toll in the violence that broke out in the Pakistani port city of Karachi following the murder of a Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) legislator rose to 73 on Wednesday, with shootouts continuing through the night.

At least 153 injured were brought to various city hospitals in last two days after the riots triggered by the murder of MQM leader and member of Sindh assembly, Raza Haider.

The most violent areas of the city for the third day running were Isa Nagri, Quaidabad, Malir, Machar Colony, Pirabad, Orangi Town and Qasba Colony, amongst others.

Mobs torched more than 50 vehicles and set several shops and fuel stations on fire. The city roads wore a deserted look for the second day Wednesday as the residents remained hesitant to step out. Though educational institutions and offices opened but attendance remained thin.

Federal Urdu University and Karachi University cancelled their scheduled examinations.

Firing and violence were also reported from Hyderabad, Sukhur, Mirpur Khas and other areas of interior Sindh. More than 100 suspects have been taken into custody by law enforcement agencies on various charges.

Police sources suspected the involvement of banned terrorist outfit Jindullah in the killing of Haider. The sketch of the attackers had been finalised with the help of an eyewitness, sources said.

Raza was shot dead by unidentified gunmen Monday in Nazimabad where he had gone to attend a funeral. A ten-member investigation team, headed by DIG Sultan Khwaja, is probing the case and collecting evidence.

Earlier, Interior Minister Rehman Malik had said that banned outfits like Sipah-i-Sahaba and Tehreek-i-Taliban were involved in the incident.

Dunya TV had reported that security agencies were in the know for more than a year that Raza and two other MQM leaders were on the hit list of terrorists.

The MQM leadership has openly held the Awami National Party responsible for Raza’s murder. The charge has been categorically denied by the ANP leadership, which has demanded a thorough probe to bring the culprits to book.

Both parties have remained fiercely engaged in a political tangle spanned over several decades for control over Karachi, which is Pakistan’s largest city and financial hub. Target killings have claimed more than 1,500 lives in the city over the last two years or so.

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